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Miliband(s) and the left. Can Labour learn its history?

The party must avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s.

Can the left, or more specifically Labour, learn from its history? In an important article in the Times (£), David Miliband sets out his stall as a leading thinker on the crisis of the contemporary left in Europe. More precisely, he discusses the failure of the European parties of the governing left to seize the moment.

He claims that the parties of the European left have never been so excluded from government. That is a little unfair on Spain, Portugal, Greece and now Ireland. And David's father lived through the 1950s, when Britain, Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries and Ireland were all solidly under centre-right rule, as was France, where the main-left opposition was provided by the Communist Party, which did protest not power.

Might it be more true that voters do not vote left at times of economic crisis and downturn? Instead, these periods see a rise of populist, nationalist identity politics, often allied to economic and social protectionism and isolationism. The left came into power in Germany in 1970 and France in 1981 at the end of longish periods of growth. Labour did badly in the 1980s and lost a fourth consecutive election in 1992 at a time of high unemployment, house repossessions and mass business closures.

By 1997, the economy was stabilised, growth was steady, and unemployment was going down. Rather than the worse, the better for the left, it may be more accurate to say that countries vote left when voters feel more confident about their future.

If greens and anti-social-democratic parties of the left are counted in with mainstream Party of European Socialist parties, then the accumulated left vote does not look so bleak even today. There is a fair chance that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could win the French presidency next year, such is the disillusion with Nicolas Sarkozy, who now trails behind the extremist and racist Marine Le Pen, who has succeeded her father as leader of France's National Front. There are six major regional elections in Germany this year following the Hamburg mini Land vote, which the Social Democrats comfortably won over Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Judgements can be made later in the year, but the chances of the SPD returning to run Germany in coalition cannot be dismissed.

The biggest problem for classic social democracy or Labourism is the disappearance of a nationally rooted, industrial working class, both skilled and blue-collar manual. There is a proletariat, but it is often immigrant, sometimes without papers, disconnected from a common sense of national identity or the traditional religious and communal history of the left. If Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx, what now is Labour's connection to Muslim Britain?

Trade unions in Europe no longer confront or control capitalism, as the private-sector economy is largely union-free. Instead unions are concentrated in the public sector, where the source of pay, pensions and perks comes from workers paying taxes. Has the left got a politics for the public sector beyond denouncing cuts? French unions have been mobilising public-sector workers continuously in a series of strikes and protests for 20 years. The unions may fill the streets, but voting urns are filled for the right as French voters keep choosing a right-wing president and even in 2002 preferred Jean-Marie Le Pen to the Socialist Lionel Jospin.

The European country where the left has held cabinet seats continuously since 1958 is Switzerland. But Switzerland is also home to Europe biggest populist identity party, the SVP (Swiss People's Party), which campaigns against the EU, against mosques, against Muslims and for harsh criminal justice. So does the left win and hold government power simultaneously with losing its hold over its traditional 20th-century base – the national, monocultural working class?

David Miliband has sketched out a series of brilliant insights, and his talk tonight at the LSE is an important event as Labour starts the long process of thinking about where it went wrong and what it needs to do to regain power. In South Yorkshire on 19 March, Britain's top Labour historians will gather with the public to discuss part of the question Miliband addresses. At a conference in Rotherham called "31-51-81: Why Labour Stayed in Opposition", Professor Andrew Gamble and other historians and writers on Labour will try to explain Labour's three lost decades – the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s. (Details and application form here.)

Gerald Kaufman, who was in the Oxford Labour Club with Rupert Murdoch and stood for parliament in 1955 and 1959, will join with David Owen, founder 30 years ago of the Social Democratic Party as witnesses to those bleak lost decades for Labour. What did Labour do or say that made voters maintain the right in power? Are there lessons today from how Labour stayed rooted in opposition for such long spells in the 20th century?

En route between London and his South Shields constituency, David Miliband is welcome to drop off in Rotherham on Saturday week. So are any NS readers who would like to take part. Come to think of it, Doncaster is only 20 minutes from Rotherham. Maybe David's brother should disguise himself, sit at the back, and see if the story of Labour in the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s can provide clues as to how he can set about becoming prime minister sooner rather than later.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

For more information go to 31-51-81.co.uk or send cheque for £10 to: South Yorkshire Political Conference, 4 Hall Grove, Rotherham S60 2BS.

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